Sunday, November 28, 2021

Plant Story--Rowan, European Mountain Ash, Sorbus aucuparia

My parents had a pretty little tree in the corner of the yard, a mountain ash. As a kid, I paid it very little attention. Meanwhile, I read the Lord of the Rings, and, like many people, loved the ent Quickbeam. In the book, Quickbeam speaks lovingly of rowan trees, "There are no trees of all that race, the people of the Rose, that are so beautiful to me. [They] grew and grew, till the shadow of each was like a green hall, and their red berries in the autumn were a burden, and a beauty, and a wonder."[Tolkien p.87] I'd known of Quickbeam for several years, ages 9 to about 16, when I discovered that rowan trees are also called mountain ash. The mountain ash was suddenly cool, like Quickbeam.

moutain ash, rowan, Sorbus aucuparia
moutain ash, rowan, Sorbus aucuparia

Quickbeam, rowan, and mountain ash are all common names of the European tree,  Sorbus aucuparia. Known as European mountain ash on U.S. plant websites, such as the U.S.D.A. plants data base (link), it is called rowan in England (example: link). Quickbeam is another English common name for it. Same tree. (There are dozens of less-common common names, including service tree, ran tree, Thor's helper, wicken-tree, whitty tree, and witch wood.)

I'm going to use the name rowan because I've seen the mountain ash of Australia. In Australia, the mountain ash is a eucalyptus tree, Eucalyptus regnans, a very handsome pale-barked tree, which is, furthermore, the tallest of all flowering plants. It is nothing like the mountain ashes of North America or Europe!

mountain ash, Eucalyptus regnans
mountain ash, Eucalyptus regnans
Victoria, Australia

There are 60 to 100 species in Sorbus, the genus of rowan, in the rose family, Rosaceae. They are called mountain ash because the compound leaves look like those of ash (Fraxinus) leaves, or service or service-tree based on the old name Sorbus, now the scientific name. Rowan comes from an Old Norse word for red. The word According to the Oxford English Dictionary, rowan was long the tree's name in Scotland but quickbeam goes back farther in England. Quickbeam is based on a German name for the plant. Quick had the same meaning as in English and "beam" is likely a version of the German baum, "tree," so this name likely refers to the rapid growth of the tree (the Oxford English Dictionary hedged). 

The word sorbus is from a Roman word meaning red or reddish, referring to the fruit, while aucuparia combines the Latin avis, "bird," and capare, "to capture," because rowan berries were used as bait to catch birds. 

Sorbus species are found from Korea and Japan west around the Northern Hemisphere to California. Most are small trees and shrubs which grow in cool or mild temperatures. Rowan, Sorbus aucuparia, was brought to North America soon after settlement and has been widely planted. It is easier to find in the U.S. than the very similar American mountain ash (Sorbus americana), which is native to northeastern North America, south to the mountains of Georgia (link). (Compare the North American distribution of American mountain ash in the USDA pages to those for rowan, European mountain ash (link)

Rowans typically grow to about 30' tall, but can spread broadly (see first photo) and develop a main trunk more than six feet in circumference. They are relatively fast-growing but short-lived trees; oldest alive in Europe is 106 years old link). Their attractive compound leaves turn yellow to red-orange in fall. The flowers are white and sweet smelling. But the fruits are the big selling point for the plant as an ornamental; clusters of bright red or red-orange berries stay on the tree into the winter.  

rowan, Sorbus aucuparia
rowan, Sorbus aucuparia

The berries are favorites of fruit-eating birds. They are edible to humans but very, very astringent. Rowan-berries make a popular jam, but are much too tart to be pleasant to eat raw. The seeds contain cyanide and should not be eaten in quantity. 

Berry is the popular name for the fruit. Botanically rowan-berries are called pomes, with the seeds in a protected core in the center of a fleshy fruit. It has the same structure as many other fruits in the rose family, from apples to pears to rosehips.

The wood is not tough enough, and rarely big enough, for construction but, being strong, resilient, and a pleasant light pinkish brown color, it is made into art pieces, tool handles, walking sticks, spindles, and small furniture. 

Rowans were relatively uncommon northern European trees, but also noticeable and useful, so they picked up a lot of folklore. Rowan trees would protect you, whether from witchcraft or lightning. 

rowan-berries, Sorpus aucuparia
 rowan-berries, Sorpus aucuparia

Rowan was used in dozens of different protective charms, from carrying rowan-wood or rowan-berries in your pocket for protection, to hanging pieces of wood in doorways to keep out evil, to fastening a tied cross of rowan twigs to cows' tails on May Eve, a night of special danger from evil spirits. Carrying bits of rowan aided recovery from illness and preserved health. Building a bit of rowan into a new house helped protect the house. Rowan whips or sprigs of rowan prevented witches from casting spells that made the horses unmanageably wild or totally unmoveable. Rowan churning staves countered witches' charms that stopped milk from solidifying into butter, and rowan rockers on a cradle kept the witches away from the child. A rowan tree planted on a grave would keep the ghost from wandering. This is just a sampling; rowan was protective and used in many diverse contexts.

In folk tales, rowan guarded people from being captured themselves when they entered the fairy realms to rescue someone. For example, they prepared a rowan pole for the captive to grab, or tied rowan-wood crosses to their clothes to protect against ensorcelment. Rowan was a popular wood for magic wands in the Harry Potter series. Supposedly the wood enhanced protective charms and was avoided by evil mages (link). Wands in Harry Potter are modern folklore, but carry on an ancient tradition. 

Druids reportedly used the bark and berries of rowan to dye ceremonial garments black. A quick search (online and in my library) found only a couple of examples of people dyeing with rowan-berries, and those produced a weak pinkish hue. Rowan is rich in tannins, however, which act as darkening agents for natural dyes, so, without having tried it, I suspect that to get black, druids used a substantial amount of bark as well as the berries. 

This pretty useful tree has been good luck to grow for centuries. 

Comments and corrections welcome.


Cunningham, S. 1985. Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. Llewellyn Publications. St. Paul, MN.

Grierson, S. 1986.The Colour Cauldron. Mill Books. Perth Scotland. 

Hyam, R. and R. Pankhurst. 1995. Plants and Their Names. Oxford University Press. Oxford. 

Hooke, D.  2010. Trees in Anglo-Saxon England. The Boydell Press. Suffolk, U.K.

Judd, W. S. and G. A. Judd. 2017. Flora of Middle Earth. Oxford University Press. New York.

Missouri Plant Finder. Sorbus aucuparia. and Sorbus americana (Accessed 11/23/21)

Monumental Trees. Sorbus aucuparia. link (Accessed 11/27/21)

 OED Online. 2021. "rowan, n.1".Oxford University Press. link  Also "quickbeam, n" and "mountain ash, n."(accessed November 25, 2021).

Radford, E. and M.A. Radford. 1961. Encyclopedia of Superstitions. ed. and rev. by C. Hole. Hutchinson & Company. London. 

Rowling, J. K. 2015. Wand Woods,  link (Accessed 11/24/21)

Vickery, R. 1997. Oxford Dictionary of Plant-Lore. Oxford University Press. Oxford.

Woolf, J. 2013. The enchantment of the rowan. The Hazel Tree.  link (Accessed 11/25/21)

Tolkien, J.R.R. No date in my edition. The Two Towers. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston. Rowan. Trees for Life (Caldonian Forest). link (accessed 11/25/21).

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
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